June 6, 2023

Sudha Pillai on getting to love her mum over the years


She is one of the envied travel writers considering her social media feed and instagram account is filled with photographs that gets you to drop your jaw every other moment. She is also an illustrator, journalist, columnist  and someone who seldom presses the button pause before speaking her mind out. Sudha Pillai shares on her childhood memories, on her mother and how from an annoying teenager according to her, she has now understood the dilemmas her mum has undergone and as a fabulous mum she’s always been in life .

In an email interaction with Mums and Stories, she shares, “ My parents hail from Kerala. I was born and brought up in Chennai before we moved to Bangalore in my early 20s. I have great memories of growing up in Chennai. It was a time before smartphones and video games, apartments and cable channels. We used to play a lot of outdoor games and every day too.

During summers, the kids in the colony would get together and put up a play for the adults. That was our annual ‘theatre project’ which involved everything from creating our own stories to dialogue writing to costumes to rehearsals. All done by us kids with no adult supervision. We would conduct doll-weddings on a grand scale. Adults too would participate by cooking the wedding feast.

Trips to libraries were mandatory. Discussions after a reading a book was a given. There was much music, singing and dancing. On rainy evenings we would gather together and indulge in chain-story-telling (gosh, we had the most bizarre minds J My parents never read me any bedtime stories. Instead, they would always ‘tell’ me bedtime stories.

Now when I look back, I realise there was a lot of story-telling in my childhood — be it amongst friends or family. We would also spend time creating and playing new games, climbing trees, stealing mangoes from each other’s gardens. Summer holidays also meant going on an overnight train journey to visit my grandmother in Kerala. And my mum would pack food for the journey, not only for us but also for strangers/co-passengers whom we “would likely meet in the train”. I remember my parents making few amazing friends on these train journeys. School was great fun, because there were around a bunch of us who studied together from LKG to the 12th standard. College was a different kind of fun. There are too many memories…

I have always wanted to tell stories – bet it writing, painting or photography. Even as a child I dreamt of travelling, meeting people, listening to their stories and writing about it. I guess journalism was a natural extension of that desire. That is one of the reasons I was always drawn to narrative feature writing than news stories.

My mum has always been curious by nature. She used to write, paint, do crafts. Even today, she is like little children who like to dismantle a radio or a crying doll to figure out how it works. That’s the principle she applies to everything in life. Of course, she dismantles things, situations, events, people…everything in her head, analyses them, puts it back together and then asks herself: Why is something the way it is? Why can’t it be another way? She is still instrumental in shaping the way I approach life.

However, growing up my mum was my “enemy” (especially during my teen years) sometimes and my best friend at all times.  She still is my best friend. There are no secrets between us. She knows everything about my life. Well… except maybe about my sex life. Even the best mums in the world need not know about certain things in your life no?

While in school, I wasn’t always allowed to go to parties with friends. Though my friends were encouraged to party at my house or spend as much time as they wanted at my place. They did too. Mum’s a fabulous cook, I guess that helped. Few of my school friends have a strong bond with my mum even till date. Growing up, my dad spent considerable time working in the Middle East. Now I understand what a difficult time it must have been for my mum to bring up a child on her own in a city that wasn’t her hometown and a place she didn’t know too well.

Though I used to get very upset with my mum when I was a teenager (I was a typical annoying teen) I do realize now that she did her best. And when I look back now, she did a fabulous job of being a great mum. One day, my friends decided to throw a house party in one of the homes where the parents had gone out for the day.  My mum decided it was unsafe for a bunch of teens to party unchaperoned. I wasn’t allowed to go to the party. I sulked. I cried. I exaggerated my travails of being an only child. But nothing was working on my mum.

Then I turned mean and ticked her off. I told she was a ‘bad mother’ for preventing me from being happy. If only she had “even a teeny-tiny heart beating in her with a teeny-tiny bit of love in it for me” (yeah, I could play the Drama Queen to the hilt those days) I wouldn’t be sitting at home, instead I would be happily dancing with my friends. What happened next was something that I will never forget. Mum asked me: Do you want to dance now, is that it? I said, yes. She made sure I danced the whole evening.

We were like two crazies who dressed up to the nines and partied till midnight. We danced to all the crazy Tamil and Malayalam songs. We drank Rasna (in lieu of booze, I guess). Mum made quick short eats as party snacks…it was just the two of us. We danced till our legs turned jelly and our bellies ached with laughter.  I still remember my mum dancing, making a fool of herself for my sake, playing the joker…her only aim that evening was to make me happy… it was one of the happiest days of my life.

Today, when I see her afflicted by arthritic pain in her limbs, it pains me and I remember that day often.  However, my mum being my mum, even today she does a little jig for me if she feels I am sad or down. It always cheers me up. “I will support you and be alongside you when you have to face the things that life will throw at you.” That has been her attitude to everything that I have done in my life.”

Sudha shares on moving from mainstream journalism to her love of being an addictive travel writer, “Travel and art have been my passion for as long as I can remember. Though I would try and find whatever little time I could to pursue my passion while holding a full-time job (and being an editor/journalist is 24/7 job) it was never enough. For more than two decades I was busy being a journalist and editor. And I enjoyed every bit of it.

I have always told myself that I would quit my job the day I stopped enjoying it. And that’s what happened in early 2016. I took a year off and travelled within the country, indulged in art & photography to my heart’s content, came back and decided never to go back to mainstream media. I wanted to travel, paint, photograph, write and do all the things that I wanted to do — for myself.

Travel has taught me many things, but the most important lessons are:

  1. Wherever you go, go with all your heart. Keep an open mind. Even disappointments can turn into pleasant learning’s.
  2. The core emotions and wants of human beings are the same all over the world. I learnt that people all over the world are just like me. So, I learnt to treat them the way I wanted to be treated.
  3. Travel is not about scoring points on social media or Instagram. You share stories with friends (or social media) because something has touched you or made you happy that you cannot help but share it with others. To reach that place, you first need to put down your camera and enjoy the place/people on a personal level first. Live in the moment. Experience everything that the world has to offer. And always remember you need many lifetimes to experience everything in this world, so you might as well slow down and savour your journeys.”

Sudha is also someone who ensures she speaks her mind on any situation and talking about this she shares, “ It is always nice to have your voice heard by others. It marks one of the greatest freedoms one can enjoy – freedom of speech. In that sense, it is nice to see women speak up. They should never go silent. However, in all this we should keep in mind one thing: I speak because I want my voice to be heard by others, but do I listen when I speak? That is something we should ask ourselves time and again.”

As a strong word of advice to aspiring journalists and travel writers she says, “Put down your cameras. Get off the phone. Go out into the world. Meet people face-to-face. Listen to their stories. Experience the surprises that the world has to offer. That is what is going to make you a good journalist/travel writer and a good human being.

For journalists, I would say, do your research thoroughly (it so much easier now with God Google), don’t be lazy about it, soak up all the information, but do not meet anyone or go to any place with any pre-conceived notion. If you do, then it defeats the purpose of being a journalist or travel writer – to discover. Don’t have any agendas. Keep your funny bone sharpened at all times. And make common sense your best friend for life.”

Winding up she mentions on the place she would have loved to travel with her mom, “ My mum loves nature and vast open spaces. She also loves meeting people. And always game for a good story. For some strange reason, I keep thinking if I could I would take my mum to Mongolia and Ireland. It is bizarre even for me because I have never been to either of these places myself.”

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